October 28th, 2011
Woody Allen famously wrote: “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.” Today, Woody would get a second chance, if not anther soul to look into. Cheaters never prosper, until now, that is. Our local school district started a bit of a wind storm last week when they issued a new policy about how to deal with students who cheat. No longer would they ask teachers to enter a mark of zero automatically for that assignment or exam. Other options are being called for, such as suspensions, but particularly retesting. The provincial teachers’ association (NLTA), however, is less enthusiastic about the changes. See ‘cheaters never prosper’ above.
The NLTA thinks the policy now sends a “weak message” to students and, in fact, will encourage more cheating. “Responsibility, respect and honesty and citizenship [are] what the social part of education is all about, and we are really missing the boat on this one.” Seems you can shoot a horse twice, they say.
The debate has played out on the open line shows with gusto. Everyone seems to have an opinion. If cheating isn’t severely punished then we are licensing bad behavior and the end-of-civilization yada yada, the argument goes. I suppose we will have to wait about twenty years for longitudinal study findings to see whether the second-chance cheaters turned into good or bad citizens. I honestly don’t know whether this is more about a power struggle between a union and a district school board, or whether all teachers believe in their heart of hearts that the changes are so horrible. I do know that at least in university culture, cheaters do not necessarily prosper but they are often given a break. Plagiarism is often considered to be epidemic in a world of electronic information, and yet few if any students are ever expelled from university for that reason, the most dire of consequences that university cheaters are expected to suffer through. Short of wrapping students’ heads in blinkers (see above), I can’t imagine how you can stamp out cheating altogether. Professors know this. We also know there are often extenuating circumstances. Cheaters come in many varieties. I think it’s safe to say that most of the incidents of cheating are confronted and settled or resolved informally at the course level—between a prof and a student. An agreement is reached, some grade accommodation determined, and then everyone moves on, hoping to put the bad incident behind them. Most universities have regulations calling for automatic zero and suspension or expulsion, but, again, these are actually rarely applied. The consequences are huge and we all know it.
At the graduate student level I have seen a lot of compassion for those caught cheating—or plagiarizing. I have seen higher bodies overturn lower-body recommendations of expulsion. I have seen due consideration given to cultural differences, misunderstandings, lack of awareness, and even desperation. Some might react negatively to these decisions, thinking them too soft. I find them not only reasonable but human. People make mistakes. We’re not talking about criminal offenses. Surely it’s a fallacy to say that cheating leads to more serious evils? I would like to see proof of that.
I admit I found it a bit alarming how candid the youngsters were who spoke to the media on the playground about the new school board ruling. Most said quite openly that they had cheated. A part of me wondered whether going soft on them was really the best way to shame them into an awareness of the seriousness of the issue. But perhaps their candor is refreshing, and a sign that the system really isn’t working as it should be. Perhaps if teachers know they don’t have to bring down the axe they might feel more comfortable identifying cheaters—and give them a chance to redeem themselves.